By C. Don Adinuba
I came to admire Pius N. Okumah, Minority Whip in the Anambra State House of Assembly from 1992 to 1993 and chairman of the Nigerian Bar Association, Nnewi Branch from 1991 to 1993, long before I met him in flesh and blood. He was the second lawyer from hometown of Ihiala in Anambra State. He shared the first name with my father, someone whose memory I will ever love passionately. But I didn’t know about Okumah until Boniface Ogochukwu Ezebunanwa, a much older cousin, mentioned him to me shortly after my West African School certificate result was published in the 1970s. Not quite impressed with my explanation that all I wanted to be was a journalist, in the footsteps of my father, Boniface told me: “I just want you to be anything that would bring honour and glory to our Umuemecheta kindred. Pius Okumah, who made a very good result in his school certificate examination like you, has become the second lawyer from our town and the first in our village, has brought honour to his kinsmen and women”. He fell short of asking me to be a lawyer, too.
Though called the Bar in the late 1970s, I did not meet Barrister, as we fondly called Okumah at home, until years later. It was in the palace of JA Chukwudolue, Ogbuehi of Umuezeawala. He read a goodwill message from Joe Mbaezue, the first engineer from our hometown to earn a doctoral degree, and chief executive of Jimbaz West Africa Ltd, easily the most successful building firm in Eastern Nigeria in the late 1970s and the 1980s. Okumah not only read but also explained and interpreted the contents. I was carried away by his calmness and cultured speech and mannerism. I inquired from someone near me, “Who is this gentleman?” “You are asking this question because you have not been coming home regularly”, he answered rater angrily, adding “Barrister Pius Okumah”. I said silently, “No wonder! Finally, I have seen this brilliant man from my place”.
One of the things which struck me about him was his decision to live in Ihiala which had very limited amenities and business as well as professional opportunities in the 1970s. Yet, he was driving good cars and living very well by law practice only. I am convinced that he would have been a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) if he had chosen to practise in Onitsha, Enugu, Port Harcourt, Owerri or Aba, to say nothing about Lagos or Abuja. I was touched by his powerful sense of community service. Unknown to many people, Okumah’s acute love of his community was one of the major reasons why I was to develop good interest in community affairs long ago.
He was not just the first lawyer from my village but also the first state legislator from the Ihitte part of Ihiala and later became the first President General of the Ihiala Progress Union (IPU) from our place. He served on the boards of, among others, the Ihiala Microfinance Bank and Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital, Ihiala. A Catholic of finest hue, he was Judge Advocate knight of St John International.
Governor Willie Obiano of Anambra State captures the essential Okumah in the following words: “Barrister Okumah was, indeed, a personification of the Think Home philosophy which my administration has been espousing. Rather than return to Lagos where he did his university studies or go to such places as Abuja and Kaduna to make fortune and name for himself, Okumah elected to be with his kinsfolk in Anambra State. This was sacrificial. Much of Ihiala then did not have electricity and there were no tarred roads outside the Onitsha-Owerri Road. In fact, infrastructure was poor. Yet, he chose to live in the village out of deep love for his community. I am told that he rendered most of his professional services to Ihiala people and organizations pro bono, that is, free of charge. I am happy that my administration is solidly building the road which passes in front of his house, his final resting place”.
I cannot remember the point at which Barrister Okumah and his family, on the one hand, and myself, on the other, became very close. His first son, Nnanna, a brilliant and far-sighted young man with tremendous leadership attributes, was determined to switch from law to English at the University of Benin because of his great interest in literature and writing until the father sought my opinion. My intervention settled the matter. Nnanna continued with law, and while returning from an NBA conference in Abuja he died in a motor accident. No one who knew him has recovered from the incident to this day.
Pius Okumah was an exceedingly principled person. Beneath his soft exterior was a tough-minded soul. He had a mind of his own and had the courage to swim against the current of popular sentiments once he was convinced of the justness of a cause. Like his wife who is a great mobiliser and leader in her own right, I did not see him drink anything other than water, not even Fanta or Cola or malt. Yet, there were always all kinds of drinks in his home which he generously served guests. All his children were well brought up and are successful professionals in various fields.
Okumah was, indeed, a trailblazer and a source of inspiration to many people in my community, including my humble self. As his remains are laid to rest on Friday 1, September, we shall always honour his memory. We pray that the Good Lord will grant him eternal rest.
•C. Don Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs