Celebrating M. G. Ejaife: Urhobo’s First University Graduate
By Ochuko Tonukari
Culled from Urhobo Voice, October 24, 2011, page 18.
It is worth mentioning, in a work of this nature that there are men who have sacrificed so much for the betterment of the Urhobo nation, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. From my little experience on planet earth, I have discovered that it is from myriad diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and before long, that ripple build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance. But it is true that few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the criticism of their colleagues, and the wrath of their society. I strongly believed that moral courage is a rarer commodity than declaring one’s ambition and winning a political seat in an election or demonstrating bravery in battle. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a nation that yields most painfully to change.
For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged, and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that event.
The future does not belong to those who are content with today, indifferent toward common problems and their fellow men alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of society. Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of Urhobo that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched with reason and principle that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, but there is also experience and truth. That is the way McNeil Gabriel Ejaife lived. That is what he leaves us. M.G Ejaife need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering, and tried to heal it, saw illiteracy and tried to change it, who saw hate and tried to teach love. That is good enough.
You see, love is not an easy feeling to put into words. Nor is loyalty, or trust, or joy. But Ejaife was all of these. He loved life completely and he lived it intensely. We can learn from Ejaife the value of hard work and ambition and maybe a little something about being a friend. This was the Ejaife who had faith, not just in his own gifts and his own future, but in the possibilities of every life. The cheerful spirit that carried him forward was more than a disposition; it was the optimism of a faithful soul who trusted in God’s purposes and knew those purposes to be right and true. A committed Christian, Mr. Ejaife was convinced that everything happened for a reason and that he had been chosen by God to play a part in Urhobo great mission.
As with the lives of other major Urhobo historical figures, McNeil Gabriel Ejaife's life has been interpreted in new ways by successive generations of Urhobo scholars, many of whom have drawn attention to the crucial role he played in representing the Urhobos in Nigeria’s mainstream politics and in his pioneering efforts in helping to lay the foundations for the Urhobo College. Recognizing that great Urhobo patriots such as Mukoro Mowoe, Joseph Akpolo Ikutegbe, J.S. Mariere, Omorohwovo Okoro, Jabin Obahor, T. E.A Salubi and others prepared the way for Ejaife's rise to national prominence, it must be established here that Ejaife’s precocious cerebral resources was a veritable springboard in his great achievement as Urhobo first University graduate and first senator. Nonetheless, studies of Ejaife’s life and times have suggested that his most significant contribution to the modern Urhobo educational attainment was to link non-Urhobo aspirations to transcendent, widely shared educational and egalitarian ideals. While helping everyone irrespective of their tribal background to acquire better-quality education, he inspired the Nigeria society to believe that education was just and consistent with traditional Nigerian egalitarian values. M.G Ejaife also appealed to the consciences of all Nigerians, thus building popular support for a veritable educational reform of the time.
In Urhobo pantheon of heroes, Ejaife continues to loom large and to have a unique appeal for his fellow Urhobos and also for people of other lands. This charm derives from his remarkable life story—the rise from humble Okpara origin, and from his distinctively benevolent and humane personality. His relevance endures and grows especially because of his eloquence as a spokesman for egalitarianism, his live and let’s live ideology and his strong desire for the Urhobos to have a splendid social intercourse and peaceful coexistence with their neighbors. But in matters of Urhobo significance, Ejaife was not only an advocate but an apologist. In his view, the Urhobo Progress Union was worth upholding not only for its own sake but because it embodied an ideal, the ideal of Urhobo self-government as a nation. In the future, the political side to Ejaife's character, and his profound worldview in particular, would come under close study, as upcoming scholars would continue to find him a rich subject for research. By the time Ejaife began to be prominent in national politics, about thirteen years after his graduation from Durham University, he had made himself one of the most distinguished and successful intellectuals in Nigeria. He was noted not only for his shrewdness and practical common sense, which enabled him always to see to the heart of any issue, but also for his unwavering fairness and utter honesty.
G. M Ejaife was fond of the Bible and knew it well. He also was fond of Shakespeare. In private conversation he used many Shakespearean allusions, discussed problems of dramatic interpretation with considerable insight, and recited long passages from memory with rare intelligence and understanding. Unlike what we experience with today’s politicians, politics gave Ejaife a chance to emerge and rise to statesmanship. In the years after his death, Ejaife remained one of the most widely known Nigeria intellectual of his era. His stature as a major historical figure was confirmed by the great number of Urhobo College graduands who later became pioneers in their chosen professions. In Urhoboland and in other places, Ejaife remains an incandescent and luminescent icon. In recent times, his image within Urhobo scholarly circles has heightened however, especially with the enthronement of the Urhobo Historical Society in 1999. The relationship between his philosophical expression of broadminded ideals and the more attenuated reality of his own life had accentuated and transformed Ejaife into one of Urhobo's most renowned and celebrated hero.
History told us that G. M Ejaife and E. N. Igho were the two beneficiaries of scholarship awards from Urhobo Progress Union. Ejaife came back to Nigeria after his graduation with a B.A. degree of Durham University in 1948, thus becoming the first Urhobo university graduate. He then became the founding Principal of Urhobo College, Effurun. Those Urhobos and non-Urhobos who personally witnessed and benefited from his life and services to this nation will prove to be among the most privileged Urhobo citizens of all times. To my mind, Ejaife was simply one of the greatest Urhobo men ever, and I believe one of the greatest Urhobo patriots of the 20th century. He was among the greatest four or five men this nation has ever had. M.G Ejaife epitomized the traditional Urhobo spirit of a positive, can-do attitude, reliance on fundamental moral principle emanating from faith in God, dedication to the principles of individual liberty, and a commitment to the unity and coexistence of this great, free homeland we call Urhobo nation.
Contrary to those who would want to bestow some of that honor on others, the world knows, God knows, and we know that it was M.G Ejaife's drive, unwavering commitment and faith, his direct challenge to the evil of that day, and his vision that propelled hundreds of Urhobos and non-Urhobos to pursue higher degrees in different fields of human endeavour. From such notable Urhobo College products like Prof. David Okpako, the first Urhobo person to have a Phd in pharmacology and to become a professor in pharmacology; to Prof. Mattew Brafe Scott-Emuakpor, the first Urhobo and first Nigerian to have a Phd in genetics; to Chief Jackson Ajogri, the first secretary to the Delta State government; to Chief Benjamin Okumagba, formerly the president of Urhobo Progress Union; to Professor Jackson Omene, a world renowned pediatrician; to Justus Esiri, one of the most celebrated African actors; to Julius Ifidon Ola of Edo State, CEO of the famous JIM Travels; to Felix Ejebba Esisi, an Itshekiri, who was a foremost NNPC staff in Nigeria; to Benjamin Maku, an Itshekiri, was a former head of Banking Examinations Department in Central Bank of Nigeria; to Christopher Orji, an Ibo, was a highly respected Shell Development Company senior staff before his retirement, the list is endless. No one else in any major office of government or political party believed it could happen so quickly...except M.G Ejaife. History has proven him right. Today, the Urhobo nation has one of the highest concentrations of intellectuals in the African continent. Evwreni and Okpara satellite communities, from my private research, now have the highest density of professionals in Urhoboland. But it was not always so. This is with regard to the goodwill and magnanimity of such men like Mowoe, Salubi, Ikutegbe, Ejaife and the likes.
It must be said here to the ears of time and to the Urhobos of my generation that, during the years when men like Omorohwovo Okoro, Thomas Erukeme, J. A. Okpodu, J.A. Obaho, J.S. Mariere, Joseph A. Uyo, Mukoro Mowoe, T.E.A Salubi, Joseph Akpolo Ikutegbe, Dr. F .O Esiri, and M.G Ejaife ran the affairs of Urhobo, the Urhobos were proud of their nation, proud of themselves and proud to be called Urhobo citizens. Ejaife’s enthusiasm was contagious and his optimism was inspiring. His humor and ability not to take himself too seriously was obvious for all to see, but this did not diminish in the least his ability to communicate and even convince those who did not agree with him to come around to the Urhobo way of thinking. In some ways I feel as though a sterling light, a great beacon in that shining city on the hill has gone out. But the shining city remains, and his vision for it remains, and it is now up to us to ensure it continues.
No doubt, the challenge of running a premier institution like the Urhobo College could be daunting. And a single tree, like they say, cannot make a forest. It is here that the effort of E.N. Igho, the second Urhobo graduate should be appreciated. Igho graduated from Downing College, Cambridge University in England, where he read Biology. Thanks too to the effort of Urhobo Progress Union. While M.G Ejaife was made the principal, E.N Igho was the science teacher of the college. Then there were men like Ikime, the History Master and Senior Tutor in charge of admissions, J.G. Ako who was already a teacher at the Urhobo Collegiate, the predecessor of Urhobo College Effurun. Chief. L.U. Ighomrore, was the bursar, while Daniel Okumagba was at that time the Games and Maths Master of Urhobo College Effurun who later became long serving Treasurer of the UPU and great politician of the Shehu Shagari administration.
McNeil Gabriel Ejaife was born on 1st June 1912 making him exactly the same age with his best friend, Frederick Ojirigho Esiri, Urhobo first medical Doctor and first Urhobo graduand of Kings College Lagos who died last year 2010 at the ripe age of 97 years. It was said that the English name McNeil was given to Ejaife by his mother in memory of one very wonderful captain of a British ship with whom she did some trading business. Ejaife’s father was Utujoh Ejaife of Okpara and his mother was Temienor Akpowhowho of Eku at Okurekpo in Agbon, an Urhobo Clan in Delta State of Nigeria. He had three siblings; one sister and two brothers who were the late Frederick Obodeti Ejaife, one of Urhobo foremost lawyers and the late Johnson Jakovo Ejaife, one of Urhobo earliest medical doctors beside Frederick Esiri and Moses Mowoe. Ejaife also had three half brothers. One of them was the late James Madedon Ejaife; he was a very skilful tailor. It was said that until his death, he spent most of his adult years in the Ejaife country home at Okpara Waterside.
M.G Ejaife was a man who developed a strong desire for learning from an early age. His mother doubtless encouraged his taste for reading, yet the original source of his desire to learn remains something of a mystery. By all accounts he was an obsessive student, often spending 15 hours of the day with his books. It was alleged that he used to trudge for miles to borrow a book. According to his own statement, however, his early surroundings provided “absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education”. He attended Anglican school at Okpara and with the help of his parents, he went to St. Andrews Teacher’s training college Oyo, in Oyo State where he was classmate to such great personalities like the late Dr. S. Taiwo, a former federal permanent secretary of education; the late chief Michael Adekunle Ajasin, a former governor of Ondo State; Rev Alayonde, the famous Principal of Ibadan Grammar School and teacher of the great Bola Ige. M.G Ejaife and Michael Adekunle Ajasin later met at Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone in 1944. At Fourah Bay, Ejaife was classmate to late Kojo Botsio, who was a onetime Ghanaian diplomat and politician. Needless to say, during the time of Ejaife’s admission in St Andrews Teacher’s training college Oyo, the man who would later become his lifetime best friend, personal doctor and confidante, Dr. F.O Esiri was also admitted as a student in Kings College, Lagos. He was the first Urhobo person to attend that prestigious institution.
Having just reached the age of 21, the young Ejaife was about to begin life on his own. Tall for a man, he was well-built and rotund but muscular and physically powerful. He was especially noted for the skill and strength with which he could wield an ax. He spoke with a genteel voice and walked in the short-striding, flat-footed, cautious manner of a diplomat. Good-natured though somewhat strict, talented as an educator and raconteur, he readily attracted friends. But he was yet to demonstrate whatever other abilities he possessed. As soon as he finished his secondary education in the early 30s, he went to Warri where he taught at the CMS elementary school until the latter part of the 1930s. It was while teaching in Warri that he met his lovely wife Cecilia Gladys Fischer, a bosom friend to Agnes Esiri. So far as can be known, the first and only real love of Ejaife's life was Cecilia. Vivacious, quick-witted, and well-cultured, Cecilia came from a rather distinguished family. It was said that it was Agnes who by this time was already Frederick Esiri’s wife that introduced Cecilia to Ejaife. Cecilia was the daughter of the late Emmanuel Edema of number sixteen Robert Road, Warri. She and Ejaife got married in 1938. M.G Ejaife would later move to Ibuzor in Delta State where he was to teach at St Thomas’s teacher’s training College until his return to Warri in 1943. During that time he devoted himself to extramural studies and sat for and obtained his London Matriculation, as it was then called.
Like a lodestar, Ejaife’s diligence and brainpower was soon recognized by a section of the Urhobo People, particularly the Late Chief Mukoro Mowoe, Jabin Obahor, and J.S. Mariere. Under Mowoe’s leadership, plans were on the pipeline to set up a secondary school that would meet the educational needs of Urhobos and non-Urhobos. Due to the intellectual promise seen in Ejaife, he was awarded a scholarship to study overseas. In some quarters, it was alleged that Joseph Akpolo Ikutegbe suggested the idea of scholarship to Mowoe. In 1944, Ejaife left his wife and three sons aged five, four, and two to the care of his father in law in Warri and proceeded to Fourah Bay College in Freetown (Sierra Leone, the only university in West Africa at the time) for the first stage of his undergraduate studies. Fourah Bay College (the oldest university college in West Africa) is a constituent college of the University of Sierra Leone (from 1966 to 2005) and was formerly affiliated with Durham University (from 1876-1967). Established in 1827, it was regarded in those days as a magnet for Africans seeking higher education under the British Empire. Fourah Bay College has such notable alumni as Ernest Bai Koroma, the fourth and current President of Sierra Leone; Alexander Babatunde Akinyele, the first Anglican Diocesan Bishop of Ibadan, first indigene of Ibadan to obtain a university degree, and the founder of the first secondary school in Ibadan; Haja Zainab Hawa Bangura, the current Sierra Leone minister of Health and sanitation; Henry Carr, was a Nigerian educator and administrator, the first Fourah Bay student to graduate with a first class honours, one of the most prominent West Africans in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century and was a member of the Nigeria legislative council in Lagos from 1918-1924; Bishop Samuel Ajayi Crowther, a linguist and the first African Anglican bishop in Nigeria; Kenneth Dike, a Nigerian historian and the first Nigerian Vice Chancellor of the nation's premier college, the University of Ibadan; Joseph Ephraim Casely-Hayford, a Fante journalist, author, lawyer, educator, and politician who supported pan-African nationalism; Samuel Onunaka Mbakwe an Igbo politician and governor of Imo State, southern Nigeria from October 1, 1979 until December 31, 1983 etc.
Meanwhile, Ejaife passed his intermediate Bachelors in Art Degree after eighteen months and then went on to Durham University in England where he graduated with BA in Arts in 1948. Being the first Urhobo graduate, he returned to a grand welcome by the Urhobo Community. The late Chief Onokar Aghoghovia played a most remarkable role in welcoming Ejaife back from England. The reception was held at the home of the late Chief Mukoro Mowoe in Okere Road, Warri. It was an occasion that witnessed the attendance of such notable Urhobo nationalists like late Chief Mowarin, The late Chief James Obahor, the late chief Akpoteheri Edewor of Robert Road Warri. Ejaife was treated somewhat like Mike Kukume from the Kukuruku Hills in S.M.O Aka’s Novel “The Weeping Undergraduate”. He was an epitome, a quintessence, a paragon and an embodiment of every Urhobo man’s dream son. And so, Ejaife was regarded as a son of every deserving Urhobo parents. Indeed, the phrase ‘Urhobo son’ quickly became Ejaife’s moniker.
When the time came to establish Urhobo College, Ejaife was unequivocally made the founding principal. Earlier on, the school was called Urhobo Collegiate but later changed to its current name of Urhobo College. It was first located on Warri-Sapele Road less than half a mile from Cemetery Road, not far from Igbudu, and almost adjacent to the old Warri cemetery. There were about 25 students at the time Ejaife chose the school Motto; “AUT OPTIMUM AUT NIHIL” i.e., “The Best or Nothing”. Two of the founding Students were Wilfred Obahor and Emmanuel Susu. The principal’s residence was a small house rented from the Late Chief Egboge in Igbudu, opposite GKS property in Warri – Sapele Road. Mrs. Cecilia Ejaife procured the students Food at first but the late chief Akpovegbeta Onokuakpor was soon appointed the food contractor. Some of the founding teachers were the late Chief Daniel Okumagba, the late Mr. Omniabus, the late Gordon Ako, and Mr. George Diejomaoh. The late Mr. E.N. Igho became the vice-principal on arrival from England in 1951 as the second Urhobo graduate. He died rather too early, a few years later.
The present campus at Effurun was begun in 1950. The student population grew rapidly from then on. The principal’s house was first occupied by the Ejaife family in 1957. Other staff houses were also opened at about that time. The houses were occupied by the likes of Mr. Samuel Okudu who later left and subsequently became the first Ijaw man to become registrar of the University of Ibadan. Mr. T. N. Tamnuo (who later became Professor and vice-chancellor of the University of Ibadan) and the late Mr. Demas Akpore, the late Mr. Vincent Uvieghara, just to mention a few, were also on the staff. M.G Ejaife remained the principal until 1966, the year of the first Nigerian military Coup. At the time he was also a member of the Nigerian Senate having been appointed at the cusp of Nigerian Independence in 1960.
At the struck of the military coup of 1966, like many others he had to take cover in the village. The Nigerian senate at the time was in disarray. After the invading soldiers were forced from Warri, Ejaife abandoned his job as principal. He was appointed District director of education in Ughelli locality. It was while on this job that he sustained a massive stroke in 1969, the result of a creeping hypertension of which he had been unaware. He was therefore left with considerable physical and intellectual disability that ended his career. After spending a period of time on the road to recovery with his son in Ibadan, he was resettled in his own residence in 1971. He subsequently died at his home in March 1972 at the age of 60. Had he not pass on Ejaife would have being 99 years on the 1st of June last month, 2011. But such is life. He was survived by his wife Chief Cecilia Gladys Ejaife who died somewhere in June 2002, and children: Augustine, an Engineer, John, a general surgeon in the USA and Clement, now deceased, but formerly a member of the Lagos airport staff, and four grandchildren at the time of his death. He was buried in his home town Okpara waterside.
As a teacher, Ejaife displayed great insight, intellect and immense mental resources. He taught English language, English literature, Latin, Mathematics and sometimes geography. He was described by Prof. David Okpako as an “all round scholar, a polymath, a polyglot – Latin and Greek, English literature, English language, music, mathematics, history, geography and several Nigerian languages”. He taught in elementary and secondary schools as well as teacher’s training college. His home was like a school away from school. Ejaife ensured that the children of his friends and relatives were given a sound, well-grounded educational footing and he went the extra-mile to instilling excellent study habits and to stimulating their appetites for knowledge. At a point some people thought he had gone mad when they see him plucking and observing some leaves as part of his nature study lessons. Some said in Urhobo, “Ejaife Korebe” which literarily means Ejaife is plucking leaves, but in Urhobo, it connotes that, “Ejaife is crazy or mad.”
Ejaife served in the Scholarship Board of the old Western Region of Nigeria as well as the Cooperative Development Board of that region. He was mentor to such prominent people as chief justice Ovie Whiskey (the first Urhobo judge), Professor Bajah, the late Demas Akpore and the current Ovie of Agbon, just to name a few. Ejaife was described as a reluctant but influential politician. He was very active in the Urhobo progress union (UPU). He played a key role in the formal installation and restoration of the titleship of the ovie of Agbon, in 1952. He was a world traveler, having traveled to Europe, America and Australia during his educational pursuit or as part of his senatorial assignment. He was an apostle of faith and lifetime member of Sacred Heart Catholic parish in Warri. Ejaife was a Catholic Knight. The Late Rev. Bishop Lucas Nwaezeapu was his student at St Thomas’ Ibuzor while the late Rev. Msgr. Stephen Umurie, the first Urhobo catholic priest, was his bosom friend.
One name that rang a bell throughout M.G Ejaife’s life is that of his lifetime friend and contemporary, Dr. F. O Esiri, the first Urhobo medical doctor. He was Ejaife’s personal physician and cared for him with the utmost dedication and devotion at his medical center by Cemetery Road Warri when he had a stroke until he recovered enough to go recuperate with his son in Ibadan. Other great names in Ejaife’s life include the late Chief Thomas Adogbeji Salubi. Chief Thomas Adogbeji Salubi and Chief Joseph Akpolo Ikutegbe were the first people to recognize Ejaife’s scholarship potential. The late Anglican Bishop Arawori and the late Peter Inweh were both Ejaife’s great mentors.
No doubt, M.G Ejaife would be very satisfied at where he is now. For one, the school he helped set up is still a thriving citadel today, and a kaput of him has been erected as homage in that college grounds. He will also be happy that an elementary school (Ejaife Primary School), has been named after him in his hometown of Okpara Inland.
Well, it gives me additional personal sorrow, when I reflect on the loss of Ejaife to Urhobo as a nation. Where will it meet a man so experienced in human and communal affairs—one so renowned for patriotism, conduct and courage? How greatly we must have been affected with the loss of such an excellent leader, such a sincere friend, and so affable a person. How rare is it to find those amiable qualifications blended together in one man! How great the loss of such a man! Adieu to that strict discipline and order, which you have always maintained! Adieu our beloved Ejaife! We implore you to come through Urhobo in the next incarnation.
Ochuko Tonukari, a poet, folklorist, short story-writer and information scientist, wrote in from Isiokolo