It was an informal meeting. Our Associate Editor, Emeka Ani, had accompanied Rev. Fr. Alex Okoro to thank Rt. Rev. Msgr. Theophilus Nwalo for a favour he (Msgr. Nwalo) did to him which contributed to his being a Catholic priest. During the interactive session at Holy Trinity Parish Oru, Ahiara, where Msgr. Nwalo is in residence, the 82 – year – old priest narrated his experience during and after the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970) and his encounter with Assumpta Press, Publisher of THE LEADER Newspaper.
It was at this point that our Associate Editor requested him to throw more light on his role to revive Assumpta Press/The Leader after the war. As if he was waiting for the question, he “sprang up” from his seat, in a manner that belied his age, went to his room and handed to me a document titled. “My Encounter with Assumpta Media,” by Rt. Rev. Msgr. Theophilus Akujobi Nwalo.
We publish below excerpts from the 92 – page document. It makes for interesting reading.
One day in June 1971, Bishop Mark Unegbu convened a meeting of the Owerri diocesan presbyterium. I attended the meeting from the Holy Ghost Scholasticate, Awomamma, where Okpala Junior Seminary was in temporary exile. As was his wont, every item on the agenda of any meeting was “sub secreto” — a secret that would be sprung at you. As a result no one had any opportunity to prepare in advance to make as much contribution as he could if things were otherwise.
On the next item at the meeting, he announced his intention to immediately revive THE LEADER newspaper. It must be edited by one of us priests. He called for flomination. Immediately Fr Benedict Agumanu rose up with his nomination: “I nominate Fr. Nwalo as the editor”. There was chorus of approval. Another nomination? There was none.
It was a shock for me, and I rose and offered plausible reasons to extricate myself from the job and for them to look for a better alternative.
My objections and reasons for non acceptance were flatly rejected. Said Bishop Unegbu: “your brothers have spoken”. When later I met him privately, he calmed my fears and told me he would bring in an experienced journalist who would show me the ropes.
Later someone asked why the priests found me an overwhelming favourite as a potential editor of THE LEADER. The response was to dig into my past. Though I never contributed articles in any of the seminary magazines (junior or senior), I felt that they were watching my track records. Even in my elementary school days, my teachers were so confident in me that they assigned me to mark the attendance register of my class, mark (assess) my fellow pupils’ exercises/ homework and keep other pertinent records. All through my Minor Seminary days, I was secretary to all the societies (associations) I was involved in, including the LEGION OF MARY. This also became my hallmark in Bigard Memorial Seminary.
After my ordination, my fellow priests insisted on an encore, and immediately elected me as secretary to our Owerri diocesan Priests association, a post I held till the end of the war in 1970. Additionally, I was the Secretary to the Diocesan Administrator, Msgr. Ignatius Okoroanyanwu who piloted the affairs of the diocese till Sept. 1970 when Bishop M. 0. Unegbu took over. And I held that post for a while under bishop Unegbu before returning to my primary assignment — the seminary. This is most probably why no one opposed the editorship burden imposed on me.
Grappling with Tough Situations
Now as editor, I have to move in uncharted waters. With what do I begin? How do I move reasonably ahead? As recorded elsewhere, I was no stranger to Assumpta Press (Printer of THE LEADER). As the war approached Owerri by August 1968, Assumpta Press was evacuated in haste. What were left behind were destroyed or burnt by the Nigerian soldiers who eventually occupied the Assumpta Cathedral complex.
The Assumpta Printing press employees soon re-assembled after the war, wishing to get back into business by urging we re-start/revive the press no matter how skeletal the operation. In their zeal, they scoured the printing press area in search of moveable types that were scattered by the invading Nigerian soldiers. It was like looking for a pin in a hay stack. Very painstaking though the exercise, it yielded a modicum results as some types were recovered, just enough to start some skeletal printing jobs. The Administrator, Msgr. Okoroanyanwu encouraged the priests to bring their printing needs (Sacrament cards etc) to Assumpta printing press. The painful rehabilitation of the press continued slowly but steadily.
Meanwhile, the parish priest of St. Gregory Amaigbo, Fr. Jude Thaddeus Ezeji (late Msgr. J. T. Ezeji of Ahiara) brought an alarming report to the Diocesan Administrator, Msgr. Ignatius Okoroanyanwu to the effect that we were in danger of losing our printing press equipment. The Hidelberg flat bed printing machines and other press materials that were hurriedly evacuated to Amaigbo before the fall of Owerri in 1968 were being cannibalized by some criminal elements in the area.
The only safety guarantee was to repatriate them to Owerri. We quickly engaged the services of R.T. Briscoe Company, Aba for the repatriation exercise. I was part of the team that lifted the machinery from Amaigbo and reinstalled them at Assumpta. It was a two-day operation. I took charge of the second day operation, having carefully observed the procedure from the company. It was quite laborious and delicate exercise: loading, transporting and unloading such heavy and delicate machinery. Thanks to God. The whole exercises were successful.
With the return of those machines, we were challenged to step up the rehabilitation of the press, though the return of THE LEADER was not yet in the front burner. This was the situation of Assumpta Press at the interim of Msgr. Okoroanyanwu’s nine-month administration till the arrival of Bishop Mark O. Unegbu as the bishop of Owerri diocese (Sept. 1970).
On arrival, Bishop Unegbu quickly set things in motion to reenergize the then “fastest growing diocese in west Africa”. He set his eyes on the completion of the Carmelite Monastery (at Owerri) the first in West Africa; the completion of Assumpta Cathedral (the symbol of the people’s faith); the re-energizing of the Assumpta Press and its off-spring: THE LEADER. It must be noted that there were then three noted catholic presses and publications in the country: viz the Claveranium press at Ibadan (publisher of INDEPENDENCE newspaper); St. Theresa’s press Calabar (publisher of CATHOLIC LIFE monthly magazine) and Assumpta press (publisher of THE LEADER). Of all these, THE LEADER was pre-eminent.
Incidentally, THE LEADER was the oniy one based in the then East Central State of the country: the area that was the major theatre of the war. After the war (January 1970) despite the so-called “No Victor, no Vanquished” declaration of General Gowon, this devastated area of the country continued to be area of contention (Political, territorial, educational, economic, and even spiritual).
With the then Administrator of the East Central State, Mr. Ukpabi Asika, a stooge of the conquering forces, the tilt was heavily in favour of the conquering forces. Ukpabi Asika was riding roughshod over the people still lying prone from the effect of the Nigeria! Biafra war. He used the state’s media (Renaissance Newspaper, and Radio) to his advantage. He lambasted the Church (especially Catholic Church) at every turn. He openly sponsored those with ideologies antithetical to Catholic! Christian morality.
In the school system, his arrogant Commissioner of Education, (the infamous Mr. Offiah Nwali) ensured that he made nonsense of moral and educational principles and their gains from the Catholic Church (despite the fact that he would have been wallowing in ignorance but for the special sacrifice the Church made to bring him up). For him it was a virtuous act to bite the finger that fed him. The Churches were robbed of their schools and the new government school systems paid lip service to religious/moral instruction of the children. The situation, I believe, informed Bishop Unegbu on the great and immediate need to revive THE LADER.
Before the expulsion of the missionaries at the end of the war (Jan. 1970), THE LEADER did not venture out in secular news publication, except some occasional column of World News in Brief. Given the post war realities, I felt that THE LEADER should break out of that mold. If done, it would not only stand up for the Truth and good guidance of the people, it would also gain wider readership circle. And so, I plunged into it and events proved me right. The editorials which I wrote at my first and second tenure as the editor are a good indication of the problems we handled at the period.