Long live Sam Okwulehie, educator extraordinaire and Umuahia’s first Mayor.
By Chido Nwangwu and Sunday Ilo.
Special to USAfrica (Houston) • USAfricaonline.com • @Chido247 • @USAfricaLive
USAfrica: In the words of Wendell Wilkie, education is the mother of leadership. Fact is that very few men typified this nugget more than Chief Sam Okwulehie.
A man with the strong belief that education is the key to the economic and political emancipation of the individual and any nation.
It is this pioneer educationist, visionary, trail blazer and philanthropist that we celebrate, today in Black History month (February 16), which would have been his 86th birthday! We celebrate a lifelong vocation of providing education to the needy and the less privileged around his environment. From several days of my interviews with him at his son Jamal’s home near Houston, I could tell that the tasking, twin challenges of age and health could not mellow the kinetic joy and electric passion he showed whenever I took him back to the highways of lighting the lamp of education in his community!
But we cannot talk about Chief Sam Okwulehie without starting from the very beginning — especially his commitment to the roles of education as the catalyst for human and civilizational growth.
Indeed, as the great sage, Chinua Achebe wrote in his magnum opus, Things Fall Apart, a chick that will grow into a cock can be spotted from the very day it hatches….
Sam Okwulehie was born in Umuda Okpuala, Isingwu, an integral part of Umuahia’s Ohuhu clan, on the 16th of February, 1932 to Chief Sam Okwulehie (Senior) Nwokeukwu and Lolo Echendu.
He died on the 30th of December, 2017.
His parents were devoted Christians who instilled in their kids the virtues of humility, honesty and hard work. These enduring virtues were to later become abidingly visible in the career of Chief Sam Okwulehie.
He started his elementary school in his village but left after two years to Umuoriehi primary school where he finished his Standard two class in 1940 after a brief interval.
His restlessness and hard work led him to Mission Hill, one of the few central schools in Umuahia, where he completed his standard three education and then proceeded to the much sought after Isingwu Central school where he secured his First School Leaving Certificate in 1947.
With his primary education now completed, there were so many options to advance in his career and under the counsel of his older brother, the late Rev. Appolos Sam Okwulehie, it was decided that he should proceed to a secondary school. But the difficulty then was that there was just one secondary school in the whole of Umuahia zone; the Methodist College at Uzuakoli, a challenge young Sam never forgot which inspired him to make a difference later in life.
As a result of the huge number of applicants struggling to gain admission in the Methodist College, his family decided not to take chances and he was sent to Onitsha where he got his admission into Providence High School, Onitsha.
Owing to the divine providence that accompanied him, he completed his secondary education and soon got a job at St. George’s College, Enugu, where Mr. C.C. Chiedozie served as the school principal.
For about two years, he did what he cherished, tutoring many students in geography and English language. But when his father fell sick, he was obliged as the last son of the family, to go home and look after him. Unfortunately his father passed unto glory on the 5th of May 1957.
He resumed work at St. George’s College after his dad’s burial rites with new philosophical interpretation to the transiency and ephemerality of life, he was now more than ever determined to leave his footprints in the sands of time.
He was now more than ever before committed to pursue goals far bigger than his individual ambition and he embraced this vision with the certainty of a maestro. Indeed, as divine providence will have it, he met Chief Obafemi Awolowo, then the national leader of Action Group, that same year in 1957. This meeting in Enugu in the presence of other pantheons of Nigerian politics, including Anthony Enahoro, Samuel Ladoke Akintola and a host of other southwestern leaders gave him insights on the bigger pictures of national development.
Chief Sam Okwulehie recalled nostalgically to USAfrica Founder Dr. Chido Nwangwu that “most people in attendance at the historic meeting were blown away by Awolowo’s eloquence and I was captivated by the idea that I, Sam, can make life, even more abundant for my people.”
This Damascus experience imbued in him with so much zeal that he remained unfazed to the prevailing political correctness.
Then it was almost a crime for an Igbo man to associate with the Action Group but together with other like minds, including their leader, the famous S.G Ikoku, they built the pioneer political structure for his new party in Enugu. Their bravery did not go unnoticed at the party headquarters and soon Sam and his two other comrades were offered party jobs with irresistible salaries. In fact, it was thrice his then salary at St. George’s College. Given that his main drive in life was how best to help his people, it fell on Mark Nwobiala from Umuahia, to prevail on him to accept the party job, and soon they proceeded to the Action Group Summer School in Western Nigeria for a six month leadership training after which he was posted back to Umuahia to open up more branches of the Action Group.
He went about his new party job which so much missionary zeal and devotion that he soon attracted the attention of the then Premier of Eastern region, Dr. Micheal Okpara of the ruling NCNC. After extensive interactions with the great Okpara, it became so clear to Sam that “the most effective way to accomplish his selfless service to his people was through the only party with a real chance of controlling the instrument of government in the eastern Nigeria.”
Ever so pragmatic and sophisticated, Sam switched to the ruling NCNC and became head of the secretive intelligence unit, office of the Premier of Eastern region, where he again demonstrated his leadership skills. He was soon selected as the NCNC electoral candidate for Chairman of the old Umuahia local government council, which he won repeatedly in 1961, 1962 and 1963. He lost his re-election in 1964 but as a dogged and battle hardened fighter he reclaimed his seat in 1966.
For Sam, politics was not just about political position and thus right from his first tenure as council chairman in 1961, he envisioned and built a modern Timber market in Umuahia with unprecedented lock up shops etc. He leveraged on the friendship with Micheal Okpara to attract the provision of pipe borne water and tarred roads to his community. But his eyes were fixed on providing accessible and quality education to his rural community and so in 1962, through the help of his friend, Micheal Okpara, he got approval to build a pioneering private secondary school, the old Crusader Secondary School, Umuahia.
A feat he achieved from his own pocket at the age of 27!
Thus fulfilling his long held desire to educate and emancipate his people. This school taught and continues to teach so many generations of students remains a testament to the enduring legacy of Sam Okwulehie. He advocated for healthcare services; and was later to become the first Nigerian to serve on the governing board of Umuahia’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital.
Without a doubt, the soft spoken gentleman left indelible marks and worthy memories reflecting strategic thinking, swiftly animated and fulfilled through action, versatility, industry, diplomacy and tact.
As my Aro elders would have told Mazi Okwulehie: may your lineage endure! •Dr. Chido Nwangwu, Founder & Publisher of USAfrica multimedia networks since 1992, first African-owned, U.S-based newspaper published on the internet USAfricaonline.com; served as adviser to Houston’s ex Mayor on Africa business and recipient of several journalism and public policy awards, has been profiled by the CNN International for his pioneering works on multimedia/news/public policy projects for Africans and Americans. He’s completing the 2018 book, titled ‘Mandela & Achebe: Footprints of Greatness.’ +1-832-45-CHIDO (24436} – Chido247@Gmail.com