…With its scenic splendor and ancient tradition, the home of Blessed Fr. Tansi remains every tourist’s destination
By UCHE AKOLISA
As the plane descended, signaling the end of the 40-minute flight from Lagos to Asaba, the aerial view of the Delta State capital spoke volumes of the real estate boom in the city. Some 15 years before it was designated state capital, Asaba, on the bank of the River Niger, was a swampy, backstreet town.
The dingy bungalows and old storey-buildings here and there have given way to beautiful, modern architectural masterpieces. Population surge in neighbouring Onitsha, Anambra State, and infrastructural development by the Delta State government have turned Asaba to a commercial hub and a home away from home for many traders and real estate investors in Onitsha and its environs who have found the city alluring.
It was my first time in the Eastern Heartland through the Asaba Airport. Thanks to then governor of Delta State, Dr. Emmanuel Uduaghan, who (until the airport was shut down recently) did what successive governors could not do, provide an airport for travelers who have business in Onitsha and its environs.
Although the Asaba Airport is not as big busy as the Enugu, Abuja or Lagos airports, it would be the envy of some smaller countries of West Africa with small “international” airports. One good thing about the airport is its proximity to town. A less than 15-minute ride on a chartered, air-conditioned bus found us in Onitsha.
Onitsha wore a new, refreshing look. The usual gridlock at the Onitsha Bridge Head, refuse dumps, street traders and ndiocho-passinga (motor park touts) who harassed travelers at the once chaotic Upper Iweka, have given way to well-paved roads, flyovers, street markings, streetlights and sandbagged police posts, a visible sign that the new sheriff in town takes no prisoners when it comes to the security of lives and property of Ndi-Anambra. Onitsha, the gateway to Nigeria’s Eastern cities, once notorious as a den of robbers, kidnappers and miscreants, bears signs of transformation.
As the bus lunged through Nkpor on the Onitsha-Enugu Expressway on a stretch of freshly-paved road, the scenic beauty was punctuated at Umunya by a dilapidated road that connects Amawbia, which motorists avoided by detouring to intra-city road networks to Enugu via Awka.
I do not know the exact turning that got us to Aguleri, home of Blessed Fr. IweneTansi, the Nigerian-born Catholic priest on the way to being canonised as saint by Rome. But the town, which in the late 90s was in the national news for its communal clash with its neighbour, Umuleri, bears relics of ancient history, as the cradle of Igbo civilisation, the coming of the Catholic Church to south-eastern Nigeria and ancient Igbo traditional religion.
Aguleri shares borders with Kogi State (the Igala people), Enugu State (Nsukka area) and former Bendel State. Agulerians are mainly farmers and fishermen but due to modernisation some have embraced oluoyibo (white collar jobs) or are involved in Izuahia (trade and commerce). We were later to find spots where a few women and children were collecting and breaking rocks (a natural endowment) for sale at a place close to the Aguleri jungle. Aguleri people are predominantly Christians (mostly Catholic), with a sprinkling of animists or people who mix both religions.
A small rustic church building in the heart of the town, side-by-side with a modern one at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Aguleri, was our first port of call. The church was the second berth East of the Niger after the first Catholic Church sited in Onitsha by the white missionaries. Also inside the church premises is the resting place of Idigo, the man who brought the white missionaries to the town and who, in recompense for attracting the white man to his birthplace, had his son crowned the first Igwe of the town.
According to Rev Fr. Christopher Odina, the Parish Priest of St Joseph’s Catholic Church, Aguleri, the missionaries came to Aguleri in 1880 at the invitation of a man known as Idigo. The town was made a Catholic parish in 1888 while the old church was built in 1937.
“Onitsha was there when the white men came to Aguleri at the invitation of Idigo. People fled because they thought they were spirits,” corroborated Onanze, one of the high chiefs of the town.
From the church, the band of journalists who visited the town at the behest of Nigerian Breweries for the take-off of the 10th edition of the Gulder Ultimate Search (GUS) were ushered to the palace of the Ezeora Enugwu Aguleri, Chukwuemeka Eri, the spiritual royal father of Aguleri (Igwe Odinani.) Aguleri has two royal fathers (the other is the Eze Idigo of the Idigo dynasty) and both kings are recognised by government and Aguleri people.
The one-storey building with architectural design and furnishing that depicted royalty, overlooked Obuga (sacred grove). As with the wailing wall of Jerusalem, both indigenes and visitors go to Obuga to pray to Chukwu.
According to an indigene of the town, Mrs. Anne Ifedigbo, Obuga shrine, also known as Obu-Gad (meaning Obi Gad in Central Igbo dialect, that is, Gad’s lounge, is the temple of Ofo, where sacrifices are made to appease the gods. Besides Idigo’s Palace, most Aguleri meetings are held there. Obi-Gad alludes to Gad, the son of the Biblical Jacob. Ancient mythology has it that Igbos are the lost tribe of Israel who dispersed and settled in present-day Nigeria and Aguleri is one of the sons of Eri, the warrior-hunter father of Ndigbo who moved from Igalaland to settle on the banks of Omabala River.
“Any real Igbo traditional ruler, not these autonomous community chiefs, goes to Obuga to perform necessary rites before going to the confluence of Ezu and Omabala to be given the Ofo or Odudueze,” Mrs. Ifedigbo said.
We sat in the Obi of Ezeora Chukwuemeka Eri, which is on the ground floor of the storey building, waiting. Before long, a palace hand heralded his royal presence with praise-singing followed by a coterie of chiefs and palace hands. We stood until he sat on the royal stool, a wooden art piece, distinct from other chairs in the lounge. Soon, prayers started with the breaking of kola nuts.
“Na mbidouwa, oyibo adirona be anyi,” the royal father said as he beckoned on Onanze to interpret what he said. “In the beginning, English was not our language,” the interpreter translated.
Ezeora continued: “In the beginning of the world, kola was the symbol with which we talked to God. God has already known we are here and answers us when we use the kola to call upon Him, even before the coming of the white man.
“When I pray, respond, ‘Ise or amen,'” he said. “God, thank you.” The gathering responded, ‘Ise.’
“Voice of God is the voice of man,” he continued. “May good happen to Nigerian Breweries Plc. May God help them. May God of Gad help them. May God of the whole Igbo help them. Their coming to Enugwu Aguleri, to Aguleri, to Anambra will bring good to them and their families.
“Evil spirits will not see them as they go into the jungle. Evil people will not see them. It shall be well with them in the name of Jesus. They have been going to other places but their coming here will be different. It will bring them good. Those who were not having promotion will get promotion. Those childless will conceive. Those unmarried will get spouses, in Jesus’ name.”
After breaking the kola, it produced seven lobes. According to the royal father, that showed that “God has answered the prayers.” He explained that when a kola nut produces seven lobes, a live chicken is presented to the guest. Nigerian Breweries Plc got one at the snap of a finger. The kola and alligator pepper were passed round for the guests to eat. More prayers followed at Obuga.
We proceeded to the popular Otuocha market, which sits on the banks of the Omabala River, the river from which Anambra State got its name; Anambra is white man’s corruption of Omabala. Otuocha is a typical rural market, where people from the two rival communities, Aguleri and Umuleri, trade. Due to frequent clashes between the two communities, the market does not belong to any one, rather both control sections of it.
Spontaneously, our august presence attracted spectators, including a mad man that locals called Paul Okeke, who stole the show with his acrobatic military display. Except for the GUS contestants who paddled away into the jungle from the Otuocha market while we stood watching on the banks of the Omabala River, we could not explore the river, which is said to boil at the confluence with Ezu River.
According to locals, Nri people (the officially documented cradle of Igbo civilisation) cannot crown their Eze without coming to Aguleri to receive the lump of clay called Ududu Eze, fetched from the bottom of the confluence, the Ofo (symbol of office) and make sacrifices to the important deities of Aguleri. We later proceeded to the Aguleri jungle, a thick, marshy forest that sits pretty on a lowland.
Due to time constraintss, we hurried off to catch our flight back to Lagos and missed going to see other tourist spots in the town like the first storey building in Aguleri, Igboezunu, the birthplace of Blessed Fr. Iwene Tansi, now a pilgrimage spot for Catholics, the cemetery where over 20 European missionary priests were buried, Isabanka, Idigo’s Palace, where Idigo’s original photos, his ikolo, deeds, trade agreements and treaties with the white men are stored.
Day of glory as Defence Academy honours, Innoson, Alele-Williams, others
By Moses Akaigwe
The exceptional, low-to-high flight path of Dr. Innocent Ifediaso Chukwuma in business and manufacturing is always lauded in various terms by different people. And, recently, at the Nigerian Defence Academy (NDA), Kaduna, an interesting addition was made to his accolades as he was honoured with a honorary Doctor of Science degree.
The hall was filled with applause when the academy’s Provost, Prof. A. S. Nwankwo, made an off-the-cuff remark that the ingenious accomplishment of the Innoson Group chairman should be a topic for research and doctoral thesis, with many high-profile people agreeing with him. Then a guest recalled that at a similar occasion in the past, Chukwuma was humorously described as a genius with the brain of three professors.
Such was the atmosphere at the academy’s 37th convocation for the cadets of the 63 Regular Course and post-graduate students, where Chukwuma and two other distinguished Nigerians,, Prof. Grace Alele-Williams and Maj-Gen Paul Tarfa (rtd), received honorary doctorate degrees.
While Alele-Williams was recognised for making history as the first woman in Africa to head a university (University of Benin), Tafa had a remarkable career in the military. He held a number of prominent command and staff appointments, including NDA commandant (1984-1988), and upon retirement in 1988 managed the Nigerian Railway Corporation for about one year.
The high premium placed on the honorary degrees was underscored when the commandant, Maj-Gen. M.T. Ibrahim, announced that the three recipients’ names were entering a list of only 21 distinguished beneficiaries of the doctoral honour, including two foreign heads of state, who had been similarly bestowed in the past eight years.
A few months ago, Chukwuma elongated his string of achievements in industry when his Innoson Group and the Nigerian Armed Forces signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) by which one of its subsidiaries now produces replacement parts for Nigerian Air Force Alpha jets.
It, therefore, did not come as a surprise when Maj-Gen. Ibrahim informed the guests at the Prof. Mahmood Yakubu Multi-purpose Hall that, in deciding to bestow the doctoral honour on Chukwuma, the NDA council had taken special note of Innoson’s satisfactory performance in the production of the replacement parts for NAF’s jets.
Guests were informed that the academy conferred the degree on Chukwuma also in recognition of his venture into establishing the first indigenous auto plant in Nigeria, Innoson Vehicle Manufacturing Company Limited (IVM), in Nnewi, Anambrs State, at a time when first generation auto plants were either dead or dying. Together with other members of the Innoson Group, like the plastics plant in Emene, Enugu, IVM provides employment for no fewer than 7,000 Nigerians.
Chukwuma earned local and global recognition with the production of passenger cars and commercial vehicles (midi, mini and mass transit buses, light trucks and refuse collectors) in Nnewi.
The foretaste of today’s feats was given very early when as an apprentice trader in 1981, he grew his spare parts business to the level where it was viable to advance to the importation of new motorcycles as completely-knocked-down parts, which he reassembled at his Nnewi plant, thereby reducing cost considerably.
This way, he started an industrial revolution in local motorcycle production by crashing the prices of new motorcycles. In doing this, he began to rub shoulders with pioneers like Leventis and Boulos Enterprises. It was the success of the motorcycle business that paved the way for the auto manufacturing plant.
Chukwuma’s citation just before Vice President Yemi Osinbajo decorated his deputy, Air Vice Marshal C. E. Okoye, and Prof. Nwankwo, with the assistance of the NDA commandant, summarised his success story. It read in part: “Presently, Innoson has made inroads into some African countries, such as Ghana, Sierra-Leone, Chad, Niger, and Togo, where the presence of his group of companies is felt. Dr. Chukwuma is also into the hospitality industry with ownership of Beverly Hills Hotel and Resort, located in Abuja.”
The ceremony reached a climax with the conferment; accolades started pouring in for Chukwuma the previous afternoon when Okoye eulogised him for his unique entrepreneurial spirit. He was the special guest at the Prize-giving/Beating of the Retreat Ceremony that followed thereafter.
Maj-Gen. Ibrahim disclosed that, in order to preserve the integrity of the honorary doctorate degree, NDA went in search of Nigerians who had excelled in their endeavours, and when Chukwuma’s name came up, he became the obvious choice.
Chukwuma, who thanked the academy for the recognition, pledged to continue devoting efforts to the development of the country.
With him on the occasion were James Ikeyi, Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN); Alfred Nwosu, media consultant; Ogilisi Rommy Ezeonwuka, Dr. U. C. Ngenegbo of Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka; the Chief Executive Officer of Innoson Kiara Academy, Enyi Ezengwa; and a business associate, Sylvester Unigwe. Also present were Innoson’s General Manager (Sales), Kosy Maduanusi, and head, media, Cornel Osigwe.
Founded in 1964 to provide the defence needs of the country, NDA was given the mandate to train cadets for commission as officers of the Nigerian Armed Forces, It attained university status in 1985 with a mandate to award its own degrees.
Nearly 400 graduates, including 133 cadets of the 63 Regular Course, as well as postgraduate students, participated in the convocation, which was preceded by the Prize-giving and Beating of the Retreat Ceremony the previous day, with Chukwuma as one of the special guests.