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Obi Nnaemeka Achebe’s strides in making Onitsha a culture, tourism destination

Obi Nnaemeka Achebe’s strides in making Onitsha a culture, tourism destination

Over the years, Onitsha, known for its river port and an economic hub for commerce, and industry, has continued to invest in culture and tourism development.

Nigeria’s tourism sector is gaining momentum as festivals such as Ofala continue to invest in ensuring Nigeria is put on the global map for excellence in tourism and cultural excellence.

Part of the key enablers to this transformation is Nnaemeka Alfred Achebe who recently received the Federal Government’s Award of Excellence in Culture.

Given in recognition of the outstanding and excellent contributions of the Ofala festival to the development and preservation of Nigeria’s cultural heritage, the ceremony was conducted in Lagos on the occasion of the first United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) Global Conference on Linking Tourism, Culture, and the Creative Industries as Pathways to Recovery and Inclusive Development.

The event was epochal in many respects. It was a first for the UNWTO, it was a first for Onitsha and it was a first for Nigeria as an event destination. Reason why, conspicuously present were the two designated ranking representatives: Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, and Zurab Pololikashvili, the Secretary General of the UNWTO.

But the glory on the day rightfully belonged to Nnaemeka Achebe, whose single minded focus on preserving the cultural heritage of his people had delivered dividends all along the way for his people and now was delivering as well for his nation. For the self-effacing monarch fondly called Agbogidi, it has been 20 remarkable years on the throne of Ezechima the founder of Onitsha (historically known as Onicha Ado N’idu), having ascended the throne on May 14, 2002, a date that, providentially, happened to be his 61st birthday as well.

This crowning achievement had come after a meritorious working life at Royal Dutch Shell, a career he embarked on after a distinguished educational odyssey that saw Agbogidi bag a BSc in Chemistry from the Ivy League University of Stanford and thereafter an MBA from another Ivy Leaguer, Columbia University, both in the United States of America.

Recall the monarch’s measured response to a question posed by Modele Sharafa-Yusuf on a Channels TV programme “View from the Top Interviews” in 2015 about the role of traditional rulers in post-colonial society vis a vis their relevance in the 21st century. “In precolonial times”, he had answered, “the primary role of traditional rulers was to defend territories, the territories of their people”. For which reason they had of necessity had to engage in wars. Per their role today, he was of the opinion that “traditional rulers are still very relevant in the lives of the people”. How? “We have to improve the lives of our people…to lead our people, to set examples, to ensure that communities are wholesome”.

But it is his noteworthy take on traditional rulers being defenders of territories that resonates strongest. And to expound on that, one would say that today, traditional rulers, and in this particular instance, Obi Achebe, is a defender of the cultural integrity of the Onitsha people. While coalescing collaborations from within and without to get Onitsha apace with the modern world, he has been resolute about culture being the competitive advantage that sets Onitsha apart. 20 years on the throne have seen him go at this single-mindedly.

Why is culture important? Because it embodies the totality of the ways of a people in a way that derives directly from their history. While never static, it has a soul, an essential core that is pivotal to the people’s identity and therefore ought not be much deviated from. Culture is essentially about rootedness, and Achebe knows full well. Which would be why on ascension to the throne in 2002, he was clear eyed about the direction he was going to be leading his people: fast forward into the future, but not far removed from its culture.

Read also: Women, a hidden force for community development

The 2022 Ofala festival, a manifest stage for the expression of the culture of the Onitsha people, provided ample room for the celebration of the exalted monarch’s 20th year on the throne. And again it was fortuitous that this year it could happen on a much grander scale than the two years previous when Covid-19 restricted movements and mingling. The 2022 edition therefore, just as in the old days before Covid, saw Onitsha come alive with festive jubilation. It was a grand spectacle of multicoloured feathers, and tusks of different sizes, the Agbalanze – titled men, did their strut like in the old days; the titled women were there as well, bedecked in their finery, and of course the general womenfolk, dainty and glamorous and breaking into dance movements at every opportunity; and then there was the often menacing prancing of the young men simulating the urgency of warriors who can’t wait to get on the battlefield. And another constant spectacle at the Ofala – the bonhomie of friends taking time out for hearty acquaintance and catch-up.

A notable aspect of the evolution of the Ofala since this King’s ascension is the international flavour of the occasion. It was no surprise therefore that there were people from other parts of Nigeria and the world gathered to witness the spectacle.

But ultimately, it was the Obi’s day, and everybody paid obeisance to Agbogidi for his dexterous handling of the affairs of Onitsha for the past 20 years.

The Ofala is the high point of the Onitsha ceremonial cycle. This display of royal dances, tributes, parades and music running over two days, with the Obi of Onitsha as the celebrant of the spectacle is rooted in deep spirituality.

The Ofala is primarily a celebration by the monarch and his subjects of the monarch’s annual emergence from seclusion, during which period the monarch has successfully negotiated the fortunes of the kingdom. It is also a re-enactment of the joy which the monarch shared with his subjects, at the discovery that yam is nontoxic, and a valuable source of food.

It is heartening therefore to see that after all the painstaking effort over the years, the Ofala festival is getting due recognition and becoming a noted fixture on the international tourism calendar. His Majesty said as much while receiving the award in Lagos: “This recognition, added to the endorsement of the Ofala by the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation as a major Nigerian festival, has further enhanced our goals of attracting considerable national, West African, and international attention to the Ofala and getting the festival to attain the status of a major event in the Nigerian, and by extension the West African cultural/tourism calendar…. an honour that will serve as a boost to our plans of bringing the world to Onitsha to experience our rich cultural heritage and enhance the growth and development of our community’’.

Whilst not losing its essence as an annual traditional and ritual obligation, the Ofala has however been broadened with new fixtures that reflect the inclusive and forward thinking mindset of the Obi and Onitsha people. An international art exhibition (Oreze), a youths’ carnival (Ofala Carnival), and a marathon (Onitsha City Marathon) which has been approved by the relevant national and international athletic bodies, are now part of the Ofala.

But as this Ofala was in large part a celebration of the Obi’s 20th anniversary on the throne, his address on the occasion was therefore, and not surprisingly, more a reminder and as well a marching order to galvanize the energies and resources of Onitsha indigenes towards self-driven and future-relevant development that would enable the community to transcend the debilitating impact of modernization and globalization on a traditional society.

He gave an account of his stewardship, so to speak, recounting the many innovations and interventions that have occurred since he mounted the saddle of his forebears.

Drawing from his personal philosophy of “Peace and Reconciliation based on Truth and Transparency as Foundation for Sustainable Development”, Achebe recounted how this has shaped, in his twenty years on the throne, the vision of re-inventing and re-positioning the Onicha Ado N’idu community via the application of modern management and leadership principles to its governance.

“The basics of the re-invention and re-positioning have involved the rebuilding of trust amongst the populace, resolution of long-standing disputes within and between kindred families and villages, engendering general reconciliation, and reformation and re-focusing of our youths’ aspirations and energy. Others were the palace redevelopment as a symbol of change, re-definition of our community as physical and virtual, and promotion of self-pride and the spirit of ‘Onicha-ness”.

But while some of the objectives had been achieved and some clearly an ongoing effort, now was the time, he believed, to launch boldly into the next phase of advancing the cause of Onitsha. Achebe reminded his august audience how in the pursuit of this goal, a meeting had been convened on April 15, 2017 with the theme: Taking Onitsha to the Next Level. “On that occasion, I stated that global and national challenges provided a backdrop against which every community or entity must examine its place within the Nigerian space and take necessary actions to secure its future, despite the government. That is the imperative for us as Ndi Onicha to put our heads together to secure the future of our homeland by ensuring that our community is fit for purpose at any time. Nobody, but ourselves, can and must do it, and the time is now!” He had further stated that “the exercise that we are about to embark upon immediately assumes monumental, historic and ground-breaking dimensions. Besides the imperatives for our domain, it may eventually become a model for other communities to imitate.”

This marching order for movement to the next level has translated into positive outcomes reflected in such areas as a modernised traditional governance arrangement, proactive management of socio-political matters, a youth development scheme that is focused on equipping the youths for the future, community consolidation in the management of Covid-19 Pandemic, and the establishment of an economic empowerment programme which is driven by the Onitsha Advancement Foundation (OnAF).

It has been a twenty-year journey on change leadership, with the purpose of bringing an ancient traditional society fast forward to the 21st century. There is no end in sight because change is a continuous process. The people of Onitsha have to anticipate and be apace with change, else change will overtake them.