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School CP - December 2005

Corpun file 17220

This Day, Lagos, 29 December 2005

Salute to Sylvester Onoja

By Monday Philips Ekpe


So, you mean that since Kings College, Lagos was established a century ago, nobody from any part of northern Nigeria had served as its principal?" A colleague had wondered when I told him that Mr. Sylvester Momoh Onoja, current principal and recipient of Officer of the Order of the Niger, OON, in the recent national award exercise was the person who broke that record.


My mind went back 28 years when he became the principal of St. Peter's College, Idah in Kogi State, my Alma Mater. The three years he spent there presented a study in shrewd administration of material and human resources.


St. Peter's then was notorious for riots, indiscipline and being home to boys whose main goal in life seemed to be anything but noble. Mr. Onoja would call out trouble makers at the morning assembly to receive punishment in order to serve as deterrent to others.

One day, a habitual noise-maker was brought out for some strokes of the cane. "Excuse me, Sir. It's not my fault," the boy shouted. "I know", Onoja replied. "It's the fault of government that brought you here to make noise. Give him 12 (strokes)." That episode was representative of his style. With a mixture of humour, firmness and charisma, he was able to come to the level of students to enforce order.

In the several clashes the students of St. Peter's had with the police and some other schools in Idah, he employed diplomacy to ensure that his students did not cause more embarrassment to the college or damage to their own future. He would tell the police his mind point-blank if he felt they were wrong. He would defend the students if he needed to but would not hesitate to punish them if they were guilty.

Many times when anarchy loomed because of perceived poor meals served in the dining hall, Onoja would come out and, in the presence of everybody, eat the food himself. That would make those who felt that he was high-handed and insensitive to begin to see him in a different light. Some students feared him; some hated his guts; others loved him. At the end, the school as an institution and the individual students became the better for his approach to administration.


The man from Imane in Kogi State who will clock 60 years in April next year appears to possess one irrepressible dream: To achieve a better Nigeria through qualitative and quantitative education. This noble goal can only be realised when governments at all levels give schooling the attention it deserves. One way to achieve that is to create the right environment for the emergence and flourishing of the many potential Onojas.

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