Founded by the Catholic Church and ran for many years by mainly Irish Vincentian priests, it was never destined to be a mediocre school. But even then, at birth, it did not belong to the big league schools in the then Benue Plateau State such as Saint Francis College, Otukpo, Mount Saint Gabriel’s, Makurdi or Saint Michael’s Secondary School, Aliade, just to mention a few. These were the tough, first generation Catholic Secondary schools in the Benue end of Benue Plateau State then, some of them established in the heat of the Second World War. Emmanuel Secondary School, Ugbokolo, (ESSU)’s distinction was that it opened the way to education for primary school pupils from the current Okpokwu Local Government Area who were still waiting for government to reach the area. In this wise, the Church acted better than the government in terms of taking education to areas of need. Hence the revolution it was when the school was opened in 1967. This was in spite of the apprehension associated with the Civil War at the time arising from the nearness of Ugbokolo to the theatres of war. The school survived that initial tension.
By local standards, it was the star attraction, an emergent multicultural community of Americans, European, Asian mainly Indians, Ceylonese tutors. Beyond this, it was the rising Seminary image of the school that was its sensation. This was to be later accentuated with the building a school Chapel whose shape or design brought spectators to the school premise.
Then the dramatic developments began to happen from nowhere as the school closed in on its tenth year. First was the selection of ESSU to host the newly established School of Basic Studies, Ugbokolo, (SBSU) in 1976. Nobody, at least no students knew how Otukpo was bypassed in favour of Ugbokolo which was still very rural when compared to Otukpo. It was perhaps in keeping with the unwritten tradition of taking institutions of higher learning to remote corners. The decision changed the orientation of ESSU students completely. The ambition to enter the SBS could be felt among the students. The School of Basic Studies have been scrapped throughout the country but in those days, SBSU students were well fed, the atmosphere completely that of a university. Their student union election was something totally new for highly regimented secondary school pupils. The impact combined the negative and the positive but the team at ESSU was equal to the task, especially with the soldier posted to maintain discipline in the school around the mid 1970s. He was not wicked at all. Nobody knew with what method he caught whoever sneaked into town. But he rarely punished. He would tell you that you were in town at so, so and so time. It was his own way of letting you know you may not be as smart as you thought.
The one who gave you a tree to uproot or a large field to cut was Mr Ekwueme, the Vice-Principal. He too had his own way of catching whoever sneaked into town although there were boys who beat him to it. He was an all rounder. Tall and well built, he was feared for his ‘mysterious’ ways. It was a great relief for anyone not to hear his name for one infraction or the other at the daily assembly. It is either for noise making in the class or in the dormitory, being found reading with lantern at odd hours, leaving one’s shirt flying or sneaking to town without permission. He worked 24 hours and he could sight wrongdoing from afar.
His opposite number was Reverend Father Anthony Njoku. That is Njoku Fair because they were two. But it was Njoku Fair who had the most impact because he was teaching ‘Christian Living’. It was not a WASC examination paper but it was the corner stone subject during his time. Fr Njoku got almost everyone to go along with him about avoiding sin. His own power did not lie in giving anyone any tree to uproot. His power lay in the sense of shame in being caught doing certain things by him. He taught you to feel too good to descend to doing certain things. It is not clear how many students who passed through him have now overcome the instinctive looking back to be sure that Fr Njoku isn’t watching at the moment of succumbing to a temptation. He was a powerful figure in a hegemonic manner. Their boss was Father Vincent O’Brien. He was the Principal for the first twenty years or so. He was not always around but he was well liked. He acted with the speed with which he walked. With this team, ESSU contained the students against the tempting impacts of the SBS which ESSU was the host although there were clearly demarcated spaces for each but it was one huge compound at the end of the day.
The second dramatic development which occurred also in 1976 was the school coming first in the overall WASC result for Benue State that year. It was unthinkable but it was true. It brought with it a new self awareness among the studentry. They were now the stars in town, the name commissioners, top government and educational administrators used to illustrate excellence. Facilities were expanded, pressure for admission followed and perhaps the hubris that accompanies such exponential growth produced its own consequence in the virtual collapse of the school shortly afterwards. Facilities were overstretched, the strict pastoral dimension declined, standards fell and the centre held no more.
It is the rise, fall and rise progression that is the story of this school, the story that has been captured in a two minute video that will be uploaded as soon as it is available in solidarity with the school that had nothing but God’s presence as its bulwark. Perhaps, all those who had a hand in running this school in its first twenty five years deserve some mention at one level or the other, including those like Fr O’Brien who would most likely not be alive anymore. Mr Ekwueme is dead already. Fr Njoku is still alive. Ishmael Nwangwa must be alive somewhere in the US. Mr. Okoli might also be alive and Jerry Ifeacho. Prof Armstrong Adejo is very much active and overlooking the school. There was Mr Mathias Adagbo who carried the burden of being asked to intervene in all manner of creases as a result of his status as the first old student to join the teaching staff and in the unsettling domain of Mathematics. Who again might one have forgotten immediately in this narrative which would continue to be updated within the context of ESSU’s Golden Jubilee!