Education: Hurray For Professor Oriaku @ 70!

By Sunny Awhefeada,


Sunday 4th December 2022 did not just come and go like any other day. It came with a lot of anticipation, excitement, prayers, good will and songs for one man who has impacted generations of people for about forty years. As the day unfurled from the cocoon of darkness with the dawn heralding crow of the cock, words went out that our teacher, my dear teacher, Professor Remigius Onyejekwe Oriaku was turning seventy that day.

The zeitgeist deployment of social media in birthday celebration went full blast for Professor Remy Oriaku as he is known and fondly called. Many of his former students who have become academic giants in their own rights at home and abroad took out time to celebrate their teacher who taught them the true essence of “learning and character”.

What the messages, many as they were, brought to the fore was the truth that deeds are never forgotten or lost. The human memory will remember and reward our deeds with the right reward or comeuppance. Simply put, just deserts await us all. The sum of the narratives woven around Professor Oriaku’s seventieth birthday affirm him as a good man, a conscientious teacher, friend, counselor, disciplinarian with a human touch and God-fearing. When he turned sixty in 2012, I wrote a tribute to celebrate him. I crave the indulgence of my gentle readers to recreate that tribute here below.

I first met then Dr. Remigius Onyejekwe Oriaku in the last days of December 1991. I met him at the famous Faculty of Arts quadrangle of the University of Ibadan (UI). That day, the usual hustle and bustle of Yuletide was palpable. The haze which came with the dust of December hung over the entire University landscape that was screened off by the imposing faculty building. The setting sun was gentle, so was the mild almost unfelt chill. This left a soothing and pleasant feeling on all.

There was in the air a lot of optimism. Some were looking forward to Christmas and New Year celebrations. Others, especially my small group of friends and acquaintances were optimistic about gaining admission into the University that was billed to reopen in early 1992. It was the anticipation of our becoming undergraduates at UI that led us there. That was twenty-one years ago!

I ended up not attending UI. Providence led my questing feet to the University of Benin, (UNIBEN) Benin-City, which turned out to be Oriaku’s alma mater. Some of the eggheads who taught Oriaku in UNIBEN’s Department of English and Literature in the late 1970s were also my teachers in the 1990s. It was through them that I got my first concrete impression of Remy Oriaku as my UNIBEN mentors call him. Professor Romanu Egudu in particular was untiring in his praise of Oriaku’s intellectual ability, strength of character and meticulousness. He praised Oriaku’s handwriting to the extent that I saw in my mind’s eye how immaculate it must have been. He described him as one of the best essayists to have passed through his tutelage!

When I started thinking of pursuing postgraduate studies I thought of going to UI and my UNIBEN teachers whom I told talked about Remy Oriaku. He easily became a beacon for me. It was therefore not fortuitous that when I visited UI to attend the ceremonies marking Professor Niyi Osundare’s 50th birthday in March 1997, Professor Austin Ofuani who was then the Head of English in UNIBEN, and who was also attending the event literally handed me over to Dr. Oriaku. When I resumed for postgraduate studies at UI in May 1998, the phenomenon of brain drain had taken a severe toll on the university. The marauding dictatorial regime of Sani Abacha had subjugated the once idyllic ivory tower. The entire nation had been ravaged. Gloom enveloped Nigeria and tension was in the air. It was in that aura of dread and despair that I began postgraduate studies at UI.

Nigeria suffered from Abacha’s maniacal rule. The campus appeared desolate, staff and students looked beaten. Everybody carried a sad ashen smile which betrayed the fact that all was not well. One or two among my class mates regretted coming to UI for postgraduate studies. They ruefully explained that they had thought that they would be taught by the big names in literary and linguistic scholarship only to discover that they had all relocated overseas. The doors in the Department of English bore their name tags of, but they were not on ground.

They left Nigeria when it became imperative to do so.
It was in the foregoing ambience that we began postgraduate studies at UI. Dr. Lekan Oyeleye (now professor) was the Head of Department, but Dr. Oriaku directed matters that pertained to literature. In spite of the paucity of academic staff Dr. Oriaku and his other colleagues threw themselves into the task of teaching us with a missionary zeal. They did their best to ensure that we had the best of postgraduate scholarship available in that circumstance. There were times we had lectures till dusk, because they had to also teach the undergraduate students in addition to my class as well as doctoral students to attend to.

Our first lecture was with Dr. Oriaku and it turned out to be a timely agenda setting encounter. In the course of that lecture he assumed the role of the concerned teacher, an earnest counselor, an elder brother all put together. He told us what to do and what to avoid if we were to have a successful outing at the end of the session. As the semester and session progressed he gave us books to read and allowed us unfettered access to his house. His wife, Chika, who now holds a doctorate, was always untiring in playing the genial host. The number of plates of rice, eba plus egusi soup with stock-fish many of us ate in their then Amina Way residence is unquantifiable!

Dr. Oriaku’s contributions to literary scholarship at Ibadan and beyond cannot be quantified. He has since 1983 when he joined the English department remained a most committed teacher of teachers.

He has mentored many generations of students across the three degrees, BA, MA and PhD, awarded by the department where he is now the longest serving academic staff. Many of his students are now well established scholars in numerous tertiary institutions across the world teaching others what he taught them. Apart from being a dedicated teacher, Oriaku is also forthright and highly disciplined. I am convinced that he left something life changing with every student that read English at Ibadan. He has also intervened to rescue many students whose academic careers would have been amputated, especially at the doctoral level. Together with another committed teacher and indefatigable encourager, Prof. Ademola Omobewaji Dasylva, Dr. Oriaku revived my doctoral research when my supervisor, Professor Sam Asein passed on in 2002. Many other instances of Oriaku’s redemptive gesture abound.

Born on 4th December 1952, Remigius Onyejekwe Oriaku came from a family with deep Roman Catholic convictions in Imo State. While growing up he exhibited evidence of scholarly disposition via his calm and studious disposition, keen observation, aptness and coherent articulation. Like many lads of his generation in the defunct Eastern region, the Nigeria-Biafra War had a disruptive effect on young Oriaku. However, his resilient spirit prodded him on and in no time went on to study English at UNIBEN where his academic effort was superlative on graduation in 1980. After UNIBEN the academic itch took him to UI where he obtained an MA in literature in 1982 and his distinctive academic feat immediately earned him a place as a lecturer in the department. He capped his studies with a doctorate in literature also from UI in 1990. Oriaku had been Sub-Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Head of English. He is married to Chika and the union is blessed with Patrick (Chidozie).

Beyond UI, Oriaku was on an international exchange programme at the University of Southern Illinois, USA. He had been on the editorial board of some Nigerian newspapers, did a sabbatical leave at the Niger Delta University and had been external examiner to some universities.

Oriaku remains a strong bridge between the present generation of staff and students of English at UI and those of the past who left in the turbulent 1990s. He had the fortune of joining the department when the teaching staff at UI was still cosmopolitan. His abiding presence thus makes him a repository of what the department was and its possibilities. He has provided the much needed compass to chart a greater future for the department.

This is wishing my very dear and enduring teacher, a happy birthday, many happy returns, long life and prosperity! Happy birthday, Sir!!!

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