Posted by By Paul Odili on
Two things give Onitsha its character. The thriving commercial activities in the town and its 600-year-old monarchy.
Two things give Onitsha its character. The thriving commercial activities in the town and its 600-year-old monarchy. Of these two characteristics, the former is more often in the news, most times for the wrong reasons. For instance, the high level of insecurity due to the high volume of physical cash in circulation have often proved a major temptation to armed robbers, who ordinarily do not need to be enticed before attacking their victims. And secondly, the level of filth and decay of infrastructure, the disdain for decent town planning regulation, and poor road network completes the sorry picture of an urban jungle.
If ever there is a living irony, Onitsha is it. Successive governments have found the city a useful cash cow generating substantial revenue, but somehow doing little to tend to it.
Nevertheless, amidst this neglect and decay, there is something that marks Onitsha out from the rest of the South East, and that is the royal stool of the Obi of Onistha. It is an institution that has endured untainted and has continued to command the reverence of the people, and these days the Obi stool seems to be going through a period of rejuvenation. But like some fairy tale going sore for two weeks the story coming out of Onitsha seem to indicate that the one institution the people can look up to is going through a period of crisis, to use the common phrase of the media reportage, a coup plot to unseat the incumbent Obi Nnaemeka Achebe, by three claimants who say he was not qualified and should vacate the stool.
Since April 25, when the story broke following declaration by the opposition led by Chief Olisa Mortune, the former Onowu Iyesele, traditional prime minister that he was installing Amalunweze Goddie Odukwe, 72 years, as the new Obi, public focus has riveted to Onitsha. Not to be out done, a second member of the opposition to Igwe Achebe’s ascension, Chief Fred Enwonwu, declared himself a parallel Obi, voiding or so he claims the declaration of the other parties as the rightful occupants of the Obi stool.
If it were a comedy show, it should have won general applause, but the issue in contention is the prestigious royal stool of Obi of Onitsha.
What is of interest is that of the 21 contestants these three - Goddie Odukwe, Fred Enwonu, Olisa Mortune, and perhaps to an extent Nwamulunamma Ifeanyi Onyejekwe, had been vocal in rejecting the selection of Igwe Achebe as wrong, and they gave their reasons.
They claim that no one can become the Obi of Onitsha unless he is a direct descendant of Ezechima. Headship of the Onitsha monarchy is rotated between two dynasties in Onitsha: the Umuezearoli and the Okebunabo Dynasties, which make up what is known today as Umuezechima.
* Igwe Ofala Okechukwu Okagbue, the last Monarch, was from the Okebunabo Dynasty, which implies that the next King would come from Umuezearoli.
* Umuezearoli had five Kindred: Agadagba, Chimedie, Ozoemele, Olisa and Dike Anyo. These also represent the five sons of Eze Aroli; hence the dynasty is called Umuezearoli.
*All the candidates that participated in the last selection exercise were therefore from Umuezearoli.
* The problem and the controversy stemmed from the inability of some of the candidates to meet the conditions set for those who want to be king; there are 27 such conditionalities, drafted by Umuezearoli kindred.
* Among the ones that proved a hurdle for some of the candidates were the following: (a) The candidate’s father should not be alive, (b) the candidate’s application must be endorsed/countersigned by the eldest man in his kindred, the Diokpa, and (c) the candidate’s family must not suffer any character defects which would render them incapable of becoming king.
* In the particular case of Nnanyelugo Alfred Achebe, his father was deemed to be alive because he refused to bury him, an Ozo titled man, in accordance with the same laws and customs he swore to uphold and to protect as an Obi. Secondly, Achebe’s Kindred Diokpa endorsed another candidate, Akunne Emma Egbunike, and could not therefore endorse Achebe’s candidacy.
* Finally, the Enendu sin which as the fable goes affected Achebe’s family, (the Oreze Obi Family), which they claimed was in 1897 banned by the Onitsha people from ever producing an Obi for Onitsha, due to certain alleged criminal abominations, which led to the death of Obi Daili.
* Enendu, from the Orezeobi family unit, was a rival candidate for the throne and was said to have used his powerful sister married to an Igala Prince to end the reign of Obi Diali, killing him in the process. When the town judged the case and pronounced against Enendu, they banned the descendants of Orezeobi ever aspiring to the kingship, through an oath, which they swore and which was thereafter thrown into the River Niger, to ensure that the decision remains irrevocable. This is the origin of the common saying in Onitsha “Ogbendida adighi echi Eze”
These in the main are the main grouse by the opposition against Igwe Achebe and his election as the Obi of Onitsha. But as should be expected there are two sides to the story and the leading lights in discounting the arguments of the opposition are led by Chief Chike Offodile the former Attorney-General of the Federation, and now the Onowu Iyesele of Onitsha kingdom who trenchantly dismissed the various points made by the opposition.
Speaking to Vanguard at the Obi’s palace ground, Chief Offodile resplendent in his traditional attire, barely held himself from using unprintable expletives, repeatedly said, “I do not wish to use foul languages against them.”
When he was asked to respond to the claim that Igwe Achebe was not qualified he replied: “Whoever feels he is not qualified to be the Obi of Onitsha can go to the law courts, the persons cannot challenge the sanctity of what Onitsha people have done on the pages of the papers, you go to the appropriate place and do that.” Taken from a purely legal point of view it is hard to fault him, but this is politics and those opposed to Igwe Achebe must be aware of this, and must have judged that throwing spanner in the works will secure them some mileage, and this they have exploited. Continuing Chief Offodile explained: “But I must say that the ascension of Igwe Achebe to the throne is the best in the last 100 years, in that he was presented to the people of Onitsha. He was also presented to the chiefs of Onitsha, then his people approved him, he was carried shoulder high and he went to the Udo shrine, which is how kings are crowned, and he was crowned there. And he came back and gave one cow each to every administrative town in Onitsha, and since then he has been on the throne, it is not left for me to tell you what he has done, the whole world will tell you what he has been doing for the people.”
Indeed, records show that the contest to succeed the late Ofala Okagbue was keen. But what is not often understood is that the large numbers of contestants was a failure of Umuezearoli kindred to prune down the number of people seeking the throne.
Traditionally, it has been known that the Umuezearoli are usually uncooperative in such matters, unlike the Okebunabo kindred that had refined the act of selection with less acrimony. It is a known fact, for instance, Fred Enweonwu and his elder brother Prof Cyril Enweonwu were competing to be selected for the Obi stool, a situation most people considered unacceptable, and this disharmony, it was learnt, was one of the factors that counted against him. On the whole the selection of Igwe Achebe was accompanied by the usual disagreement within the Umuezealori kindred and led to the setting up of multiple selection committees in contradiction to the command given by Ajie Ukpabi Asika, who was ill and could not organise things and had asked that his deputy take charge.
Apart from the main stream committee headed by Chief TNL Egbunike(Akpe-Olodi), there was also a smaller group led by Chief A.I Egbunike (Adazi-Oglani), and there was still another group formed by some aspirants who felt schemed out, which they called “Umuezealori Dynasty”, this group had 17 aspirants. In such a situation the Umuezealori could not present a single candidate, but in order not to make any one feel left outthe Umuezechima invited everyone to present their credentials and be screened. And to make easy to be handle the Umuezechima convened the conference of Umuezechima under the leadership of three principal spiritual leaders, the Diopkas. Also part of those in attendance was the red cap chiefs and spiritual heads of the various family groups. So the selection process was all embracing and had the stamp of popular participation by everyone.
Apart from the contention by the opposition that Igwe Achebe is not qualified, there is the second major leg, and this is the role of Chief Mortune in this running saga. He says he is the Onowu Iyasele and has the authority to crown the new Obi, citing the authority of his office and the intervention of the police to restore his rights to do so. In a press release, he interpreted the police intervention to mean that the appointments made by Igwe Achebe has been nullified and since there is a vacuum in the Obiship, he is now the acting Obi and regent of Onitsha.
This claim and others did not go unchallenged by Chief Offodile, who condemned his usurpation of the powers of Obi, and his claim that he is now a regent. He also rejected his posture that the police has a right to intervene and resolve a matter concerning any dispute arising from the tussle for Obiship. According to Offodile, going by Onitsha custom and tradition there is no office of a regent.
He said that succession to the throne of Obi is a well known practice and at no time was regency ever part of the structure. Offodile in his petition to the police alerted the police to the dangers inherent in the claims made be Mortune, and the actions he promised such as installing a new Obi, as likely to cause breach of public peace. After series of exchanges of correspondences and even visits to the police command, nothing happened, paving the way for Mortune and his group to install a parallel Obi. Although not much has made about the role of the police it is clear that they had not be alive to their duties.
The Nigerian police it seems for reasons best known to them abdicated their responsibilities in preventing a likely breakdown of law and order. As things stand today, if the peace in the town degenerates a whole lot of blame should be placed squarely on the shoulders of the police force.
Beyond petitioning the police over the impending crisis, Chief Offodile dismissed two other main claims by Mortune, that his appointment as a chief is for life, and that he is the Onowu of the town.
Offodile in a chat contends that appointment cannot be for life, because the Obi is the one who has the exclusive right to confer titles on any person and could remove the person if he feels the individual has failed in his duties. On his being Onowu, Offodile laughed it off, stating that Mortune was stripped of his title by Onitsha people during the time of Ofala Okagbue, which the current Obi merely ratified.
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