The Asagba and the Transformation of Asaba
By: Chuka Konwea
Asaba, the Delta State capital was in a festive mood last week. There was drumming, dancing, singing and merry-making. There was exhortative speeches, novelty football matches and fund – raising ceremonies . All of these were in honour of one man, HRH Obi (Prof.) Joseph Chike Edozien, J.P. the Asagba of Asaba.
How time flies. It is already 10 years since Obi (Prof.) Edozien ascended the throne as the Asagba of Asaba. His reign has coincided with a period of unprecedented transformation of Asaba town from a close- knit tribal society into an emerging bureaucratic, cosmopolitan and geo-political Mecca of sorts.
How will the reign of HRH Obi (Prof.) J.C. Edozien be remembered in history? What role has he played in bringing about the dynamic transformation of Asaba? How has he managed to control and contain the intrigues within traditional Asaba society and the royal court? Hints of the possible answers to these and other questions will begin to emerge during the week long ceremony.
Asaba town is strategically located on the banks of the River Niger, along Nigeria’s East – West arterial highway and the nascent Trans – African Highway. Historically it has and continues to play a distinguished role in the history of modern Nigeria. For a brief period Asaba was once the de – facto capital of Nigeria. This was in the days when the UAC and John Holt etc. held sway.
Arising from their early contact with European Civilization, Asaba people developed a largely unslaked thirst for Western education. As a result in the early part of this century, right up to the time of independence, Asaba exported many of her brightest sons into almost all the nooks and crannies of Nigeria where they distinguished themselves in the service of diverse bodies such as the District authorities, the Marine, the P & T, the Railways, the UAC, John Holt etc.
If the period leading up to the attainment of independence marks the apogee of modern Asaba history, then the subsequent period 1960 – 1990 perhaps marks the nadir of Asaba decline. Note that we have deliberately chosen the cut-off date 1960, because with the departure of the British on Nigeria’s attainment of independence, diligent Asaba sons lost the objective influence of the impartial colonial masters in matters such as promotion and work- place recognition. Such issues became subjects of politics, an area in which Asaba people have never shown much inclination or natural aptitude.
It was during the period 1960-1990 that Asaba suffered a pogrom in the the hands of advancing and vengeful Federal troops during the Nigerian Civil War. Much has been written about the massacre of innocent Asaba sons, the rape of Asaba daughters and the unprecedented physical, infrastructural and psychic carnage inflicted on Asaba town during this period.
After the war, Asaba people who once held the commanding heights in National and regional bureaucracies became endangered species. Asaba town became a ghost of its former self. Infact it took the providential emergence of P.I.G. Onyeobi as the Secretary to the then Bendel State Government in the eighties for the re-dress of the physical neglect of the once proud town to commence.
This was the setting when then Professor Joseph Chike Edozien abandoned his distinguished Emeritus Professorial chair in the United States to heed the call of his compatriots for enlightened, emancipatory and and galvanizing leadership.
For a man who had spent a good portion of his life in the comfort and certainty of the American university system, HRH Obi (Prof.) J.C. Edozien adapted remarkably well to the rigors and challenges of ruling a dynamic, educated and highly critical populace. In a bold display of good judgement, he surrounded himself with able advisers and lieutenants. His choice of the highly respected Chief P.I.G. Onyeobi as Iyase Ahaba, then and in retrospect seems to be divinely inspired. The composition of his cabinet chiefs betrays the imprimatur of a forward looking and modern king desirous of positively transforming his domain.
Check out this sample list: Chief Sunny Odogwu,the Ide Ahaba (business mogul); Chief P.C. Asiodu, the Izoma Ahaba (accomplished technocrat); Chief P.C. Onianwa, the Akwue Ahaba (physicist and captain of industry); Chief (Prof.) E. Edozien, the Ojiba Ahaba (economist and captain of industry); Chief S. C. Ofili, the Uwolo Ahaba (business tycoon); Chief (Prof.) J. O. Obi, Isama Ahaba (physician); Chief (Col.) J.O.G. Achuzia, Ikemba Ahaba (electrical engineer and erstwhile war-lord); Chief J. Iloba, Olikeze Ahaba (Secretary, Asagba – in – Council) etc. the list is far from ended.
The emergence of HRH Obi (Prof.) J. C. Edozien as the Asagba of Asaba also almost coincided with the proclamation of Asaba as the capital of Delta State. Among Asaba indigenes, the jury is still out as to whether the capital status is a blessing or a curse in disguise.
Asaba people are intensely proud of and spiritually attached to their land and town. Extremely receptive of strangers, it is nevertheless an incontrovertible historical fact that Asaba people do not part easily with their land. This iconoclastic attitude was perhaps reinforced by the plight of indigenous Onitsha people across the Niger.
All that changed with the emergence of Asaba as state capital. Asaba land is now being freely bought and sold to all-comers. Land speculation is now big business in Asaba. A band of indigenous 419 land speculators who go about selling and reselling every undeveloped piece of land has emerged. These unscrupulous and jobless youths together with their aging god-fathers have conspired to give Asaba a bad name. This is one menace HRH Obi (Prof.) J.C. Edozien must nip in the bud soon. When the land stock is exhausted, these youths will become the terrorists of the future.
To some Asaba indigenes, Asaba has become a paradise lost since its emergence as state capital. To others modernism is inevitable if wealth is to be created and progress made. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between these two extremist positions.
HRH Obi (Prof.) Edozien has left indelible imprints on Asaba town. He is ever at the forefront of all efforts to attract Federal and State Government presence to Asaba. His reign has been marked by remarkable tranquillity sometimes in the face of pointed provocation. It is rumoured that it was he who inspired his maternal cousin Chief Sunny Odogwu to establish the magnificent Grand Hotel.
In the manner of all accomplished pedagogists, HRH the Asagba’s modus operandi on close scrutiny, appears to be firstly, unambiguous articulation of group goals and objectives. Secondly, he seeks advice from all and sundry irrespective of class or status on how best to implement his goals. Thirdly, he formulates a clear plan of action. Finally, he manifests unwavering doggedness in pursuing its implementation until its eventual realisation.
This approach has led to charges of arrogance and elitism levied against HRH in certain quarters. In the manner of all achievers, he remains undaunted. HRH may need however to improve his mechanism of communication with the grass-roots to avoid misconception and misinterpretation of his lofty goals and noble ideas.
Asaba people are mostly descendants of the fabled Nnebisi, a product of the union between an Igala prince and a woman of Igbo stock from Nteje in Anambra State. Asaba comprises 5 quarters or “Ebos” namely Umuezei, Umuagu, Ugbomanta, Umuaji and Umuonaje. Within these Ebos are several sub- units or familiar villages. The Asagba position is rotatory among the five quarters. The Asaba “traditional Parliament” is called the Otu-lhaza. In Asaba, men, women and youths have enshrined rights, duties and obligations and no group may usurp or perform the duties of others. Conflict – resolution mechanisms are in-built. In a country rife with cries of marginalization and arrogation of power, Nigeria may have a lot to learn from the Asaba model of African democracy.
The typical Asaba man or woman is extremely proud of his heritage and culture even at the risk of an empty stomach. A possible historical explanation of the basis of this pride is the fact that Asaba in its entire history was never conquered militarily by any foreign power local or European.
In spite of his admiration for and perhaps exploits in the realm of Western education, an Asaba man at heart remains primarily “Onye Ahaba”. No matter how accomplished he may be in the realm of Western education, an Asaba man does not feel traditionally accomplished until he has acquired the traditional “Alor” title and become an “Ogbueshi”.
To acquire the Alor (Ogbueshi) title, an Asaba man must have buried all his paternal and sometimes maternal ancestors in the traditional way. This explains why the funeral industry is a prominent one in Asaba. The physical internment of the deceased means almost nothing in the Asaba traditional setting. What counts is the second or traditional burial. Indigent families have been known to borrow massively in a bid to perform the traditional funeral rites. Kinsmen who stand aloof while a person is sick have been known to feverishly participate in the planning and execution of the traditional burial rites often with ulterior and less than sincere motives.
The Asagba – in – Council under the leadership of HRH has reviewed Asaba burial rites with a view to curtailing excesses and checking abuses. Sadly, the review does not go far enough for the likes of this writer whose late father, a staunch Catholic until his death, forbade from organising or participating in his second burial. And so, this writer will never savour the joy and frill of taking the Alor title or enjoy the swaggering banter with the accompanying traditional fan insignia.
To ensure her survival in this post- industrial age, the Asagba and his strategists must formulate a “knowledge – control” policy for Asaba in this 21st century. With its strategic location, relatively low population density, tranquility and idyllic setting, Asaba can easily become the Silicon Valley of Nigeria. This can be achieved with the establishment of technology parks in Asaba. Asaba can emulate the example of green Ireland and become a leading centre of information technology and software development.