In church circles, she is popularly known as “Nwanyi Ukwa,” in recognition of her culinary skills in making the delicious, traditional dish Ukwa. Dr Mrs Uche Ejiogu has proudly defended that title every Harvest at Assumpta Cathedral.
But she has other names not connected to her culinary ability. Nicknames such as Iron Lady and Air Raid refer to her penchant for rattling nerves when she pays a surprise visit to schools. In one of her visits, she found that teachers at the school had taken more money from students than was allowed for a particular exercise. She ordered a refund and teachers didn’t like that.
But that’s the “Iron Lady” in “Nwanyi Ukwa,” a doctor of education, an administrator and university don sitting in one of the largest offices in Imo- State, as the Executive Chairman of the State Universal Basic Education Board (SUBEB). This is a position many would love to hold because the office is not only just physically large, enough naira and donations flow in.
Shy of two years in office, Mrs Ejiogu has received several local and international awards. An outstanding one is the “Most innovative chairman,” which she received for doing something quite “ordinary,” but one which her predecessors didn’t have the initiative to do.
Whereas they would hire children from private schools to represent Imo at national competitions, Dr Mrs Ejiogu selected boys and girls from public schools and trained them for the assignment. The pupils shone like stars, smashing the record that private school children are brighter.
“Before now, whenever we had outside competitions, the former chairman will go to private schools, hire children and call them Imo children. When I came, I said ‘no, I cannot be hiring children for competition. If I do that,’ what am I here for?’ Three months after I came, I put my feet down and said public school children will represent us. I took them to a hotel for their rehearsals. It was a debating society. We picked children from different schools and when they went for the competition, the children took first. That is what gave me that award,” Mrs Ejiogu explained, beaming with pride and rising from her seat for the third time to welcome new sets of VIPS.
Needless to say her office is a busy place. The interview was interrupted several times to make room for high profile visitors. But Dr (Mrs) Ejiogu is a woman of action. She prefers to be on the field, supervising and monitoring schools but her office is a “hot” one and attracts many visitors, meetings and travels.
The influx of high-powered visitors gives credence to the notion that SUBEB is a contractor’s haven. But Mrs Ejiogu said she has cleaned up the place.
“I normally tell the press that before now SUBEB was known as a contract giving institution not supervision and inspection of teaching and learning. Whenever you hear SUBEB, what was attached to the word was contract! So many people did not know what other things SUBEB did. When you come in here, a lot of vehicles are packed and they are all contractors. By that time, supervision was the job of supervisors only, the chief executive did not take part because “iga hapu ebe ana echi ozo gaba ebe ana aru agwu,” (people prefer to go to a place of enjoyment to a place of grief) Nobody came here for work, people came here for money and when those things are happening, particular group of people suffer it – the teachers and pupils,” she said, emotionally.
“When they – teachers- find out you don’t have their interest at heart, they engage in other things… But now, before the end of the month, teachers’ salaries have been paid, because the Governor will fire you if you don’t. SUBEB was lucrative before but not now. The duty of SUBEB is to achieve effective teaching and learning, getting to know the people you’re dealing with. You must supervise and visit them. The duty of SUBEB is to make sure that the money being paid by Government is not in vain.”
Leaning back, the big and elegant beautiful woman continued:
“Before now, when contracts are given they will be given to my brother and my sister who will use inferior materials to procure things like seats. That’s the problem we have, sometimes they will get the contracts and not even do the work. Now, look at the seat here, they are strong and will take longer to build- things are in progress and before long, we will deliver,” she added, defending the problem of lack of infrastructure in schools.
A lot of donations come into SUBEB from people who want to identify with the Governor’s free education. The items are distributed to schools. Some proprietors come to request for reading materials and are given. Face2 Face also saw stacks of what looked like rice but which were actually bags of socks, procured by the Governor for distribution to schools.
However SUBEB chairman admitted that some schools have no chairs for the children to sit on but explained that durable seats would soon be distributed.
Mrs Ejiogu’s pedigree in education is known. Ndi Owerri-born, she was trained in both Imo and Abia States Universities, where she distinguished herself academically. A member of many groups, including the Catholic Women Organisation (CWO) Mrs Ejiogu has been severally decorated for her contribution to education. She has also been nominated for the “Black Legend Mother of Gold in Africa”.
Mrs. Ejiogu has her critics but her friends credit her for hard work and salute her appointment to the top job. Dr Ejiogu joined SUBEB as a senior administrative officer 17 years ago. A lecturer, wife and mother of four, she started life as a primary school teacher.
“I left teaching in 1995 and joined SUBEB.I know everybody’s seat, position and capability. I know those who take bribe and those who work hard. I know SUBEB because I have been here for long,” she said.
Explaining more, she added:
“I hate sitting at this table. For the past two weeks, I have not been here. But almost every child in Imo State has my number. Before now, schools engaged in collecting handiwork. Then the Governor came in and gave free education – in other to show it’s free indeed, he took off PTA levy, art work levy, reading levy etc, which made parents continue to suffer. You could see a pupil paying up to N400 for handiwork so I moved in. They call me air raid, Iron lady etc. But I don’t give a damn.”
One area that has proved tough for the SUBEB chairman is pensions. Retired primary school teachers and SUBEB workers are still in the lurch.
“When I came into office, it was a thorn in my flesh. I thought I could fix it; I thought it was easy. But it’s not. Owelle has set up so many committees with me as a member but we discovered that the Federal Government must release the funds first; it has not come into the state yet. My mother receives pension every month of N2, 000 from the state and gets nothing from Federal,” she said.
“My suggestion is that pensioners should still be praying. One day, God will touch the hearts of those in charge because many people are dying. Some of the people still living are those who have children to look after them. Many others have died,” she concluded.
That’s so sad for a country flowing with oil money.